PARIS -- François Hollande is my fourth French president, not that I vote here. I only live here. When people ask when did I arrive in France, I answer, "With Mitterrand," and they smile thinking back with a nostalgic gaze. It was a long time ago -- way back in the late spring of 1981.
I enjoyed Tonton François I (actually, the II, after François I) because he was unflappable. You could hurl invective at him and he would sit there quietly. Mitterrand was the quintessence of sagacity. Each night his solemn face was the first to appear on the state-run news, sort of like Father reading us an early-bedtime story. And when he wasn't on TV, then he was walking slowly on the low hills of Charente, admiring the vines and vistas of Cognac country.
How could you not like a guy like that? There was no odor of corruption -- only a benevolence that spoke volumes about wiser leaders on this shore of the Atlantic, men and women steeped in something vastly more reflective and, well, intelligent than their American counterparts.
Then the buffoonery kicked in, especially when the old man's popularity faltered. To rally his partisans and snare a few new ones, Mitterrand went on TV in late April 1985 for a long "intervention," during which he tried to reassure the French that, well, he was a real person. Much to the nation's amusement, Tonton at one point assured young people that, yes, he really believed in the great power of music and then proceeded to cite the number of rock groups twanging in the metropole (35,000, though the Culture Ministry had it at 25,000). His popularity improved and stayed there, but that was about it. When his two seven-year terms were over, it became clear that the rocking Socialists had drunk the fiscal well dry and then some.
You can't help but feel sorry for French presidents. When the unconvincing and wobbly Jacques Chirac left the Paris City Hall to take over the Élysée, it was a ho-hum moment. Sure, people on the right were thrilled that the don of the left had gone; but I can recall no roar of joy at the new guy coming in. In fact, the first thought that occurred to me, listening to him speak on TV, is that this guy probably wouldn't even qualify as a governor of a small U.S. state. I was in error, obviously, because the level of aptitude among U.S. governors is now well known to be somewhat lower than France. Still, it felt right to see Chirac as a sort of goofy bubblehead on a rubber stick. I never managed to get past that, not in all 12 years he reigned. Dig down, and I can find nothing even funny to recount about this gaffe-prone leader's tenure. What does that say about it?
Then there is Nicolas Sarkozy. He stirs the heart and tripes. My wife and I were walking along the Seine downstream from Paris one spring morning when suddenly along the sidewalk, gorillas in suits talking into little microphones appeared. A bit farther on, there was a party tent on a patch of lawn and people standing around. At the head of the throng, on a tall platform, stood a short man. My wife said, "That's Sarkozy. He'll be the next president." I said, "Yeah?" She said, "No doubt about it." He was yelling his discourse and struggling to stand tall over his admirers -- all to inaugurate a plaque about the size of a place mat that no one would ever stop to read.
He has always struck me as a thuggish guy prone to tantrums. He is also a show-off who always looks like he is trying too hard. I remember coming out of the Métro by the Paris City Hall just after he was elected president in May 2007 only to run into a division of riot police deployed along every curb. Having no idea what it was about, I proceeded to my lunch spot some blocks away. There was no let-up in the cohorts of defenders, however, and so of the young one standing guard directly in front of my peaceable, unarmed restaurant I asked, "Why are there so many police out?" To which he saluted and replied, "The president is lunching with the mayor at City Hall." Oh. I figured there were at least 1,000 police officers in the neighborhood. In an hour it was all over. Except for the bill, which some have put at 450,000 euros for each presidential outing.
Sarko did this kind of thing everywhere he went. I fondly remember the 50,000 euros spent for air-conditioning at a speech during a one-day trip to Réunion. And who could forget the special shower (with music and adjustable jets) he had installed at Mediterranean summit in Paris for the bargain price of 245,000 euros. But this president was never one to be intimidated, though almost: He got so mad at a company making voodoo dolls in his likeness, with 12 pins and instructions for spells, for 12.95 euros, that he sued the outfit -- only to have the case tossed out.
Now comes l'autre François, a breath of fresh air and dignity, with a bit of Tonton in his folded-arms repose and sweet-boy smile. But is he for real, complete with spine? Can he lead the way with a pro-growth banner held high? Can he be the standard-bearer for the anti-austerity camp? Or will he lapse into a post-bling-bling turpitude where Berlin is left to run the affairs of Paris and the southern reaches of Europe are left to rot and fall away?
I got the sense that voters were all too happy to power-wash Sarko (Iznogoud) away but a little too cheap-thrilled by Hollande (Flanby, a custard). Can the winner keep up the drumbeat of fun amid the very serious storm? One has to believe there's still plenty of room left for more spendthrift antics, goofy bonhomie and even scandal atop the political heap. Without which, of course, the French would die of ennui.